Pupils go to market

Last week I went with my daughter to the Suffolk Show. Big rural fairs aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, I appreciate, and seeing sheep, cows and working horses parade around the ring and wait for their prizes (the “Grand Parade”) may seem a bizarre anachronism in the modern age when most people probably don’t see a live pig from one year to the next, let alone a pig farmer. But – as well as providing lots of entertainment, a wealth of good food and numerous opportunities to buy horsey clothing – these country shows do provide those of us in more rural areas with a link between where we live and the farming industry which for centuries has been the mainstay of the rural economy.

One thing rural economies don’t breed much of these days is school-pupils. Even accounting for migration the birth rate in Suffolk is declining, and looks set to continue doing so. Sustaining our schools is key to keeping our villages and market towns alive and to curtailing their transition into retirement complexes for the middle classes who can afford to buy houses in them. Markets – whether for butchers buying pork or parents seeking school places – need enough buyers (or pupils, in the case of schools) for any of the competitors to survive.  Suffolk grows quite a lot of pigs but not pupils. So why, then, has the DfE appeared to choose Suffolk as the test-bed for a new market in education provision, by approving so many new free schools in the county over the last few years ?

The news reported by Schoolsweek this weekend that the DfE has overturned – at least in the short-term – another new free school in Bury St Edmunds, is of course very welcome. (Sorry to labour the point but there are already enough – very good – schools in the area for the number of pupils available.) Also good news is the fact that the reversal happened because the County Council presented the DfE with a legal challenge. I presume that they did so primarily because the proposed free school, a middle school, threatened to undermine the final stages of the county’s transition into a two-tier system (primary and secondary schools instead of primary, middle and upper schools), rather than because of any new-found opposition to market models in public services.

Over many years the Conservative administration in Suffolk has demonstrated an enthusiasm for market-led models in areas of public service (in areas such as care homes), and they have previously kept quiet as new free schools have popped up in market towns over the last few years. But they have argued long and fiercely for a transition to the two-tier school structure, on the grounds that it will raise GCSE attainment. (That said, given how much else has been going on in education it will of course be impossible to prove this either way). And perhaps they have finally got fed up with Suffolk’s children being used to test out government policy. There are, after all, no shortage of other areas where people want free schools and where there are pupils in need of school places.

Suffolk now boasts five more secondary schools than it needs in areas all served by schools with ample spaces, all so the DfE could boast a new market in education. And they aren’t just any secondary schools, either: they include one – IES Breckland with a ‘for-profit’ provider which has already had to install a new headteacher due to being put in special measures, and three run by a trust – The Seckford Foundation – which might have been better off sticking to running private schools, which it seems better suited to. Is that a fair criticism? Well the Seckford Foundation’s Free Schools Trust (effectively a new academy chain, which runs Beccles, Saxmundham and Ixworth Free Schools), has already been subject to a DfE Warning Notice in relation to  Beccles and Saxmundham (that must have hurt the DfE) as well as a rap over the knuckles by the Advertising Standards Authority. Stour Valley Community School, on the other hand, appears to be faring better, and things are improving in regard to Ofsted and staff turnover at IES Breckland. (Incidentally neither of these belong to academy chains – or at least not yet. Their independence makes them a bit vulnerable given the government’s stated aim that all schools – and it is still all schools – will be in academy chains by 2022, but that’s a whole other blog post).

Free School rhetoric has it that competition raises standards, though how this would actually work in practice has never been satisfactorily explained. The results from Suffolk’s five free secondary  schools (from DfE performance tables) so far suggest they have some way to go to get level with existing schools, let alone surpass them or drive up the county average. Stour Valley, at 52%, came closest to the Suffolk average of 54.5% for 5 A-Cs at GCSE including English and Maths in 2015.  Beccles, Saxmundham and IES Breckland (Ixworth did not have a year 11 cohort last year) were all more than 10% behind the Suffolk average. It is important to state that the cohort in each of these schools was small, so a few pupils with very poor results could be pulling down the averages. But even so, they are poor results.

So where does that leave Suffolk’s pupils? Still off to market, but without much guarantee of success. Moreover, the financial impact of that market is felt across our existing schools as well as the new ones. Schools with fewer pupils than planned for have less money to spend, whether they are the new free schools or the existing schools which pupils would otherwise have gone to. And despite protestations that markets raise standards, there just isn’t the evidence out there to support the idea that any sort of schools can raise standards with a reduction in funds.   Interestingly it’s Suffolk’s free schools which are taking the worst hit, by and large. Freedom of Information requests have revealed that whilst first choice applications to IES Breckland, Saxmundham and Stour Valley Community School have increased in the last year, applications to Beccles more than halved. And when it comes to actually offering places, more pupils have been offered places at the three Seckford Foundation schools (210 in total) than put them as first choice (177 in total), suggesting that a fair number of pupils are being sent to Free Schools rather than actually choosing to go to them. The really startling figure is that between them, the three Seckford schools anticipate filling less than 60% of their total year 7 places this September. That’s a very expensive experiment.

So far, then, you might wonder if market models work better for Suffolk’s pigs than for Suffolk’s pupils. The DfE has so far spent millions opening 5 new schools in Suffolk which are entirely surplus to requirements and which don’t produce better results. It approved then overturned (at least for the time being) another free school in Bury St Edmunds after local (good and outstanding) schools and the (Conservative) county council complained both forcefully and legally – even though the free school approval process is supposed to include consulting with local authorities and stakeholders.  Given their aggressive – and rather chaotic – pursuit of ‘school growth’ it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the DfE care more about growing a market in schools than they do about the quality of the education it delivers. Pigs get welfare standards, but schools don’t. As any financial advisor will tell you, one of the essential characteristics of market-based approaches – in any commodity – is that individual elements of it can fail. As it stands, some of the schools in this pupil market are surely heading for a crash, for both financial and educational reasons. This isn’t like buying bacon, it has a lasting impact on pupils’ life chances. Where, you might wonder, will we go from here?


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